The Horse's Mouth Summary
by Joyce Cary

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The Horse's Mouth Summary

(Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

Just out of prison, Gulley Jimson looks up his old friend Coker, the plain barmaid at the Eagle. Coker wants him to press a lawsuit over some of his paintings; if Gulley collects, Coker will collect from him. At last, Gulley manages to get away from her and return to his studio in an old boat shed. The shack roof leaks, and the walls sag. His paints and brushes are either stolen or ruined by rain and rats, but The Fall, although damaged, is there. The Fall, depicting Adam and Eve in their fall from grace, will be his masterpiece.

Gulley has a questionable reputation as an artist. Several years back, he painted some nudes of Sara Monday, startling portraits in the Impressionist style of a lovely woman in her bath. Sara lived with Gulley as his wife. When the breakup came, she kept the pictures and sold most of them to a collector named Hickson. She kept one or two for herself. Gulley, past sixty years old now, did nothing since the Sara nudes to enhance his reputation, but he still has faithful followers of eccentric outcasts and young Nosy. Nosy, wanting to be an artist, worships art and Gulley.

To complete The Fall, Gulley needed paints and brushes. In order to get Gulley to see Sara and secure evidence for a lawsuit to compel Hickson to return the Sara nudes, Coker buys him some paints and brushes. Gulley periodically works on The Fall, driven primarily by a compulsion to paint, sometimes by desire for a beer or some food.

When Coker pins him down and takes him to see Sara, Gulley is stunned to find her an aging woman to whom he feels drawn even while he pities her. Sara willingly signs a statement that she gave the pictures to Hickson; then she tries to renew her affair with Gulley, who responds with his old ardor. Sara has been badly treated by a succession of men, but, like Gulley, she has few complaints. Both feel that the short-lived prosperity and good times they enjoyed were worth the pain they currently are suffering.

Working intermittently on The Fall, Gulley frequently tricks Coker into buying him paints. Once, she persuades him to go with her to Hickson to try to get the pictures or a settlement for them. When Hickson seems ready to settle a small sum on Gulley, even though Hickson legally took the pictures in return for a debt, Gulley slips some valuable snuffboxes in his pocket and is caught by Hickson and the police. Although this bit of foolishness costs him six months in jail, he maintains a bemused tolerance for Hickson.

In jail, Gulley receives a letter from the self-styled Professor Alabaster, who plans to write a life history of the painter of the Sara Monday pictures. Gulley thinks the idea ridiculous until he decides there might be money in it. He is energized with an idea for another masterpiece, and after his release, he hurries back to the boat shed to finish The Fall and get started on his new work. He finds Coker pregnant and in possession of the shed. Betrayed by her lover and her job at the pub lost, she moved to the shed with her mother. Gulley has to find some way to get The Fall out. Before he makes any plans, he meets “Professor” Alabaster. Alabaster not only wants to write Gulley’s life history but also hopes to sell some of Gulley’s work to Sir William Beeder, a collector who admires the paintings possessed by Hickson. Gulley tries to interest Alabaster and Sir William in one of the new masterpieces he is going to paint, but Sir William has a great desire for one of the Sara nudes or something similar.

Gulley still hopes to interest Sir William in The Fall, but when he goes again to the boat shed, he finds that Coker’s mother cut it up to mend the roof. Gulley decides there is no use in losing his temper again and doing something foolish; then he will land back in jail before he can do another masterpiece or make a sale to Sir William. Besides, he suddenly realizes that he is tired of The Fall.

In the meantime, if Sir William wants a Sara nude, perhaps Gulley can persuade old Sara to give him one...

(The entire section is 1,193 words.)